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Hindu sarpanch’s killing: A setback for Kashmiriyat

Hindu sarpanch’s killing: A setback for Kashmiriyat

The killing of Ajay Pandita, a sarpanch from the minority community in Kashmir, has jolted the Kashmiri Pandits who, of late, had started to believe that their dream of returning to their roots was heading towards realization. The community had been silently working on building bridges with the majority community in Kashmir over the past several years and there were growing voices from the Kashmiri Muslims in support.

Pandita's was a true-to-life story of a Kashmiri Pandit who did not wait for any government package or security, but decided to live among his Muslim neighbors the way it was in Kashmir before the advent of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in 1989. He was neither a BJP leader nor an RSS man, but a Congress worker who believed that he was only a Kashmiri wanting to set an example for his fellow persecuted Pandit migrants to return and live happily ever after. He returned to his village in South Kashmir in 1996 and gradually built a reputation for himself in his Muslim neighborhood, which catapulted him to the sarpanch level.

Pandita's murder is not just about the killing of a Hindu sarpanch of a Muslim area—it raises several questions.

For the first time since 1947, elections for sarpanches were held in Jammu and Kashmir in 2018. Till then, they were only selected by mainstream politicians. The local body representatives were expected to fulfill Prime Minister Narendra Modi's idea of a 'Naya Kashmir.' They, as grassroots leaders, could connect with the people as the Prime Minister said the people were disenchanted with the dynasties. But nothing of the sort happened.

Instead, political rivalry from the mainstream politicians and terror threats has made the working of these grassroots leaders difficult. Most have not been provided with security and Ajay Pandita is the latest example, whose request for security cover was not taken seriously. Though Modi's decision of holding the local-level elections could have been a game changer, a half-hearted effort and follow-up by the Centre coupled with the rivalry and uncooperative stance of the mainstream politicians has put the lives of these grassroots leaders in danger.

Is Ajay Pandita's a political murder or a terror killing? Soon after his murder, the Pakistan-backed Tehreek Resistance Front (TRF) claimed responsibility for the crime. The fact is that Pandita had been living in south Kashmir for the past 24 years and could have been targeted much earlier.

Many Kashmiri Pandit organizations are demanding a judicial probe into the murder. Satish Mahaldar, chairman of the Reconciliation, Return and Rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits (RRRKP), a migrant body, said, "This could be a result of the combination of both—political rivalry and terror targeting. He was popular in his area, he was a Hindu and a sarpanch, and someone not connected with any powerful family. In Kashmir, lots of intrigue has been going on and by killing him, a fear has been created not only among the minorities, but also the grassroots leaders."

In Ajay Pandita's murder, Modi's 'Naya Kashmir' slogan has not only been challenged, but the chinks have also been exposed.

The Pakistan-backed TRF claimed responsibility for the attack on Pandita by releasing a statement, "No political stooge/collaborator who stands alongside the occupational regime will be spared. Ajay Pandita Sarpanch was one of these political leeches who tarnish the image of Jammu and Kashmir. These are the main reasons for our occupational regimes to stay on our land the JK."

These threatening words are reminiscent of the horrifying period in the 1990s, when hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits were killed by terrorists and all the local and vernacular newspapers in the Valley would carry open threats against those siding with India. Kashmiri Pandits were seen as India supporters, hence the acts of terror, including kidnappings, gang-rapes, murders, thrashings and harassment, bombing or setting on fire Hindu properties including temples and pasting threat posters and letters on the Hindu houses were common occurrences. Pandita's killing has put doubts in many who were thinking of returning after seeing his success story.

The Modi-led BJP government had affirmed in Parliament that the community will be rehabilitated in the ten districts of the Valley. Even at the local level in Kashmir, political leaders, as well as religious leaders, had been talking about the return of the minority community. But the killing of Pandita has unnerved a section of the community which feels that for establishing Kashmiriyat, the onus lay on the majority community in the Valley.

Kashmiri Pandit activist Ashok Manwati said, "Ajay Pandita Bharati has become a braveheart martyr, who overruled the suggestions and apprehension of threat perception on security aspects from every Kashmiri Pandit close to him, and went back and settled in his village with the Muslim population. He set an example for the government of India. His killing has caused the death of that example."

While apprehensions and fear may have set in once again, there are many members of the community who have not lost hope. Soon after the death of Pandita, his daughter said that the family would abandon their home in Kashmir. She was categorical that the land belonged to the Kashmiri Pandits and they would return. Said Mahaldar, "If some have grievances, let them come forward and discuss. But killing is not a solution. Those who are behind this heinous act are actually doing a disservice to Kashmir. Let there be talks. Maybe we can help them. We are all Kashmiris at the end of the day.".